Art Farmer Tribute Band at WPU Jazz Room

October 1, 2021

The fall Jazz Room Series at William Paterson University’s Shea Center in Wayne, NJ, presented a unique tribute Sunday, October 24, to the great trumpeter and flugelhorn player Art Farmer, who performed at Shea on several occasions during the latter part of his career (See cover story, Jersey Jazz, October 2021). The event was also the official recognition of the gift of Farmer’s recordings, sheet music, and memorabilia to the WPU Living Jazz Archives. Lynne Mueller of Metuchen, NJ, who was Farmer’s companion and manager during the last years of his life, made the donation. In her remarks, Mueller stated, “It is a tremendous tribute to Art Farmer’s legacy that the Art Farmer Collection becomes a part of the Living Jazz Archives today.” Proceeds from the event will be used to support the Archives. Farmer passed away on October 4, 1999, at the age of 71.

As is the usual custom at these Sunday afternoon concerts, this one began with a set by one of the many, excellent student ensembles — in this case, the Duke Ellington Ensemble directed by the noted pianist Bill Charlap, Director of Jazz Studies at WPU. The sextet was made up of Jon Gittings, trumpet (Cranbury, NJ); Patrick Gannon, alto saxophone and clarinet (Scotch Plains, NJ); Richard LaRouech, trombone (East Aurora, NY); Caelan Cardello, piano (Teaneck, NJ); Matt Holmes, bass (Harpers Ferry, WV) and Albert Oliart, drums (Mexico City). The choice of this group was appropriate since Ellington was Farmer’s favorite composer. Showing their depth, the sextet members selected a mix of well known and more obscure Ellington beginning with “Bojangles” which was followed by the lovely ballad “Prelude to a Kiss.” On “Purple Gazelle” Gannon switched from alto saxophone to clarinet, and the band members employed a surprisingly free form segue into their final selection, the slow blues, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.”

The Art Farmer Tribute Band, an impressive assemblage of some of the most accomplished artists in jazz today, included trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and four musicians who actually played and recorded with Farmer in the 1990s — saxophonist Ron Blake (in above photo), pianist Geoffrey Keezer, bassist Kenny Davis, and drummer Yoron Israel. Both Pelt and Keezer are adjunct faculty members at WPU. From the comments of the five at the Q & A session prior to the concert, it was clear that this event was an emotional one for all involved. Mueller remarked: “The fact that these musicians agreed — without hesitation — to perform this concert 22 years after Art’s passing says much about the enduring character of Art Farmer and their respect for him.”

Blake assumed the role of leader for the all-star quintet’s set, which began with Horace Silver’s “Moon Rays,” first recorded by the pianist’s quintet in 1958 for the Blue Note Records album Further Explorations by the Horace Silver Quintet. The horns on that classic hard bop session were Farmer and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan (1931-1993) who would reunite in the 1980s to create a wealth of exceptional music under Farmer’s leadership.

Jordan was replaced in Farmer’s quintet by Blake, who noted that Farmer would often open a set with “Moon Rays. From the first notes of Blake’s powerful tenor sax solo it was apparent that the audience was in for a wonderful afternoon. Pelt and Keezer followed with equally compelling contributions, and Israel kept the excitement level up while not being intrusive.

Next on the program was Jordan’s “Third Avenue,” frequently performed by Farmer’s 1990s bands. The piece made its debut in 1984 on Jordan’s Repetition album (Soul Note Records). Farmer recorded it with his quintet with Jordan on the albums, Blame It on My Youth (Contemporary Records 1988) and Live at Sweet Basil (Evidence Records 1992). It was also a staple of Jordan’s highly regarded big band. Solos on this challenging piece were by Pelt, Blake on tenor sax, Davis, and Israel.

Farmer often relied upon and encouraged his sidemen to write for his band. A major contributor was the Austrian pianist Fritz Pauer (1943-2012), who was part of Farmer’s “European Quintet.” Pauer’s “Fairytale Countryside,” an unusual and evocative piece, in 5/4, made its debut on Farmer’s Blame It in My Youth album and also appears on Live at Sweet Basil and Live at Jazzland (1998). Here, Keezer led off the soloing followed by Pelt and Blake on soprano sax.

Blake sat out “I Remember Clifford”, which featured Pelt in a moving performance. A haunting jazz standard composed by Benny Golson after Clifford Brown’s tragic and premature death in 1956, this ballad has now been recorded nearly 450 times. Farmer first recorded it with Oscar Pettiford’s legendary orchestra in 1957 and many times after that in 1960 with the Jazztet, the sextet that he and Golson led jointly.

Reaching back to 1955, the quintet next performed “Satellite,” a Gigi Gryce original that debuted on the Prestige Records album, The Art Farmer Quintet featuring Gigi Gryce. A fascinating and difficult tune with two harmonic forms, key modulations and time signature changes, the band made it sound as if it had been playing the piece for years despite having had just a couple of hours of rehearsal time earlier in the day. The soloists were Blake on tenor sax, a muted Pelt, and Keezer.

With Blake on soprano sax, the quintet offered an unusually slow version of Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk” done as Farmer preferred with muted trumpet and bass playing the theme in unison. The soloists were Keezer (throughout, clearly the most adventurous of the five), Blake, Pelt, and Davis. Monk first recorded this blues in 1954 for Prestige Records. Farmer recorded it once, on Live at Sweet Basil in 1992. Keezer, Davis, and Israel were on that date, early in their careers.

The concert ended with a solo interpretation of Duke Ellington’s “T.G.T.T.” (“Too Good to Title”) performed by Keezer. This tune was one of Farmer’s favorites and was rendered in a touching manner that paid tribute to both Farmer and Ellington.

This event was a fitting and timely acknowledgment of the substantial legacy of Art Farmer. Kudos to Lynne Mueller, Dr. David Demsey, Coordinator of Jazz Studies and Curator of the Living Jazz Archives at WPU, and many others who worked very hard to make it happen. NOAL COHEN

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